What is Radical? On Burning Man, Sub-Culture, and Living Vitally

When I was in high school, I fancied myself a radical of a sort, a subversive. I had a Karl Marx poster in my room (it replaced the St. Pauli Girl poster, I have to admit) as well as a Grateful Dead poster. I was in personal contact with the head of the Communist Party at the time, Gus Hall. When I told my grandfather this — my grandfather who'd helped found the National Lawyers Guild and who'd defended communists who faced deportation — he was angry. I was surprised; I thought he'd be proud. But he wasn't proud. Be invisible, he told me, more or less. There's no need to declare myself a communist to the world; believe and do what I believe and do and leave it at that.

It took me many years to understand this. I think I'm still trying to understand it. After he told me this, I still declared myself a radical at every turn. I wore my hair crazy Jewfro hippy; I wore a Lenin t-shirt on move-in day at college. I started an anti-nuke group my freshman year — STAND: students against nuclear destruction. An idiotic name, I know. And an idiotic group, no doubt.

To this day, I feel an urge to let people know that I don't think like them, that I'm different — smarter but also more, well, radical. Besides the idiotic vanity of this, it also belies my very claim: to be radical, one doesn't need to declare oneself as such. One lives as one lives. (And what's more stupid than trying to prove you're smart?)

Long hair, mohawks, safety pin in noses and cheeks, tattoos: these are signs that presumably declare to others I am radical! And, no doubt, there is something socially radical about sticking a pin through your nose and wearing it around. It probably freaks out the squares in their Gap and yoga pants. But is that radical in and of itself?

Back in those Jewfro, commie, Dead days, I imagined there was a counter-culture, a sub-culture that resisted the Man. But later I'd come to see that all there are are networks of people who share a language, a dialect of words and signs and gestures. There is no master group: all there are are sub-cultures.

This meant that being a commie and going to Dead shows did not make me radical. It just meant I followed the rules of a different group, used different words and wore different clothes. It's all language games, as Wittgenstein might say, without a master rule set (old school grammarians included).

What, then, is radical?

I have a good friend who explores the intellectual, sensual, and existential world with a certain vim. He parties, as they say, and when he was younger, liked to go to arty punkish alterna-rock shows. The thing is, he's always been a dapper dresser — nice pants, nice shoes, a blazer over a  sweater, perhaps, hair neatly groomed. And, at these shows, he'd catch shit from people there. And the funny thing is, in that crowd, he was far and away the most different — the most radical.

In my world, it's shocking to hear someone say I believe in God. We're all supposed to be these liberal, scientific rationalists. And maybe "spiritual," too. But to say those words — I believe in God — makes people cringe and shrink away. So I like to say precisely those words, when asked, because it's true: I do believe in God. I could qualify that in many ways, describe what I mean by I, believe, and God. But that would just help my world be more comfortable with the fact that I wasn't playing their language game. So I just leave it at that.

Of course, in other worlds, to say I don't believe in God is to disrupt the language game, to make people shrink away. So perhaps to be radical means breaking the rules of one's language game.

A good friend of mine was just here recently, making his way home after his billionth Burning Man. He showed me many pictures of pretty women and men scantily clad with that beautiful sky making them gleam all the more. Then he showed me pictures of his trips to Thailand and Bali and, at first, I couldn't tell the difference form the Burning Man pictures. Everyone looked the same; they all were partaking of the same language game, the same fashion code, the same vocabulary of what's to be said and not said.

There is certainly something radical in there, in this creation of a new language game amid the tired language games of work, marriage, kids. This is what Deleuze and Guattari might call a minor language, a dialect that borrows from the major language but makes its own sense, invents a new language game (to mix Wittgenstien and Deleuze and Guattari).

On the other hand, it's all just another language game — meet the new boss, same as the old boss. Of course, this language game may not be interested in being radical; it just wants its pleasures and delights. And that, to me, sounds radically fantastic.

Burning Man seems to me like the Carnival of the Middle Ages, a chaotic, indulgent release from the strictures of the everyday. So people go to their idiotic jobs and pay their mortgage and fancy car lease and fight with their spouses and such and then, for 10 days, they get to cut loose and be nutty — and then go back to their insane lives. In this case, the minor language of Burning Man becomes a sub-set of the major language of contemporary, urban, liberal American capitalism. Without this release, the whole charade of work-marry-die might come crashing down.

(Please,  I am not criticizing Burning Man at all. As an agoraphobic misanthrope, I have no desire to go at all. And everyone I know and love who goes, loves it. So I love it, too. I am just trying to understand the idea of radicality and subversion and poking at Burning Man a bit to see if it helps me understand.)

I know that I lead a very odd life compared to those around me. I have never really worked for anyone else, had a job that I had to go to every day (at least since college; I did work then — but even then, the jobs I had were odd and left me a lot of freedom to roam). I spend a tremendous amount of time alone. I've lived in San Francisco 25 years and I have no one who expects to see me or cares where I am or wonders what I'm doing (except for my son, who only cares when he's here with me).

This life gives me plenty of time to relax, which I need after I work and think. It gives me plenty of time to write. It pays the bills (for now, at least!). And it lets me eat and piss and shit when I want, in privacy. There are very few language games I have to master, no fashion codes to follow (I write this in my pajama pants and stained sweatshirt that I wear all day every day). This is my radicality; this is how I burrow, parry, duck, and avoid the monstrosity of life today.

This, then, might be what defines radical. It's not just disrupting language games or inventing new ones. It's forging a course of daily life that fuels your vitality.

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